An utterly bewitching atrocity, the notorious Korean nitro-flask The Isle makes a deceptively meditative first impression. A gorgeously photographed, restrained parable set entirely upon the surface of a placid, fog-layered lake, Kim Ki-Duk’s independently produced movie nevertheless comes with the kind of audience-participation credentials you don’t hear about much anymore. Horrified walkouts are one thing; The Isle‘s gossip trail entails fainting spells (including critics) and vomiting throes from here to the Venice Film Festival. You’d have to look back to the theater-lobby barf-bag heyday of Night of the Living Dead, Mark of the Devil, and The Exorcist for this kind of fun. In every case, however, the ostensible trauma begins with the offscreen, or just vaguely glimpsed, suggestion of physical violation—and that counts for The Isle as well. It’s refreshing to see that audiences are still vulnerable enough to lose their consciousness or their lunch thanks to a film, but thanks to what a film doesn’t show? That’s entertainment.
Kim’s film isn’t horror, but that doesn’t mean another label will fit. Psychosexual existentialism, perhaps—Kobo Abe with sadomasophagia. The lake in question is something of a defunct Asian particularity—a floating resort-cum-hideaway, where lovers, fishermen, and carousers can hole up for weeks at a time upon tented rafts, their food, booze, and hookers boated out to them by the local proprietress (the ghostly Jung Suh). In Kim’s valley of the damned, this mute, raven-haired wraith is the scariest mystery—no clues are dropped as to who she is, why she doesn’t speak, or what has brought her to this station, where she sells herself for gang bangs on one hand and exacts shark-like revenge upon short-changing customers on the other. She’s a fabulous, haunting creation, never hesitating to simply disappear into the night water and then rise up through a raft’s shithole to prove a point with an ice pick.
Things only get murkier with the appearance of a depressed man (Kim Yoo-Suk, the actor name of the decade) determined to kill himself on the lake for undisclosed reasons. The pair of loners share a mutual fascination, but their pas de deux escalates into a grisly duel of masochism and comeuppance, particularly once the law arrives. The first sequence to set off viewer-reactive sirens turns out to be a galloping motif: The man despairingly swallows a clump of handmade fish hooks, leaving the woman to hide him from the police under his raft and then matter-of-factly reel him back in again. It may be the first step toward a scalding transcendence, but it’s also a fantastically pungent image, contrasting as it does with the equally brutal scene in which a lake denizen eats hunks of a huge, live fish sushi-style—before it escapes into the deep.
The Isle invites interpretation—the complex equation between self-laceration and salvation is offered up again and again, in ways Clive Barker would appreciate—and, thankfully, no single reading diminishes the movie’s patient beauty, physical force, or daring. Even without its gauntlet-like aura, Kim’s movie rocks—I saw it cold a year ago, and I don’t think I’ve been as entranced and appalled by an Asian film since Shinya Tsukamoto’s Iron Man.
Shooting small and occasionally hitting its mark, Julie Davis’s indie Amy’s Orgasm rehashes post-Woody Allen/Nora Ephron romance-wrangling, in which Men Are From Mars, et cetera, and everyone has a pseudo-funny theory about relationships and why You Just Don’t Understand. What’s clear is that Davis, who wrote, directed, and stars as a lovely and successful self-help writer with man problems, knows she’s cute as a bug’s ear, and mugs for the camera at every opportunity. (The cutting to soft-focus close-ups of her evoke an Uhura-in-Star Trek sense memory.) Attempting to salve her stay-home-with-ice-cream-and-porn wounds, Davis’s neurotic totsie dates a misogynist shock-jock (Nick Chinlund), with results both predictable and pointless. Davis has energy, but she doesn’t bother to make her heroine’s book sound convincing, the gender-war ideas original, or the comic scenes fly. Instead, the film is buttressed by song montages and jokey chapter titles. No Jessica Stein, Davis’s film does have a witty subthread: Amy’s frequent confessional meetings with a sympathetic albeit sweaty priest (Jeff Cesario), whose frustrated reactions to her sexual complaints are expertly timed. “Ever read The Thorn Birds?” she asks desperately; “Read it?” he moans, “I’ve got it on laser disc.”